Laura E. Richards
"Captain January," "Melody," "Marie," etc.
TO Richard Sullivan, KINDEST OF UNCLES, FRIENDS, AND CRITICS, THIS STORY IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED
I. THE TEMPLE OF VESTA
II. THE YOUNG DOCTOR
III. GARDEN FANCIES
IV. MOSTLY PROFESSIONAL
V. LETTER-WRITING AND HYSTERICS
IX. SIDE LIGHTS
X. OVER THE WAY
XI. BROKEN BONES
He paddled on in silence
The young doctor glancing around saw all these things.
He stood looking at her, his hand still on the hammock rope.
"There he comes, full chisel!" cried Ithuriel Butters.
THE TEMPLE OF VESTA
"That's a pleasant looking house," said the young doctor. "What's the matter with my getting taken in there?"
The old doctor checked his horse, and looked at the house with a smile.
"Nothing in the world," he said, "except the small fact that they wouldn't take you."
"Why not?" asked the young man, vivaciously. "Too rich? too proud? too young? too old? what's the matter with them?"
The old doctor laughed outright this time. "You young firebrand!" he said. "Do you think you are going to take this village by storm? That house is the Temple of Vesta. It is inhabited by the Vestal Virgins, who tend the sacred fire, and do other things beside. You might as well ask to be taken into the meeting-house to board."
"This is more attractive than the meetinghouse," said the young doctor. "This is one of the most attractive houses I ever saw."
He looked at it earnestly, and as they drove along the elm-shaded street, he turned in his seat to look at it again.
It certainly was an attractive house. Its front of bright clean red brick was perhaps too near the street; but the garden, whose tall lilac and syringa bushes waved over the top of the high wall, must, he thought, run back some way, and from the west windows there must be a glorious sea-view.
The house looked both genteel and benevolent. The white stone steps and window-sills and the white fan over the door gave a certain effect of clean linen that was singularly pleasing. The young doctor, unlike Doctor Johnson, had a passion for clean linen. The knocker, too, was of the graceful long oval shape he liked, and burnished to the last point of perfection, and the shining windows were so placed as to give an air of cheerful interrogation to the whole.
"I like that house!" said the young doctor again. "Tell me about the people!"
Again the old doctor laughed. "I tell you they are the Vestal Virgins!" he repeated. "There are two of them, Miss Phoebe and Miss Vesta Blyth. Miss Phoebe is as good as gold, but something of a man-hater. She doesn't think much of the sex in general, but she is a good friend of mine, and she'll be good to you for my sake. Miss Vesta"—the young doctor, who was observant, noted a slight change in his hearty voice—"Vesta Blyth is a saint."
"What kind of saint? invalid? bedridden? blind?"
"No, no, no! saints don't all have to be bedridden. Vesta is a—you might call her Saint Placidia. Her life has been shadowed. She was once engaged—to a very worthy young man—thirty years ago. The day before the wedding he was drowned; sailboat capsized in a squall, just in the bay here. Since then she keeps a light burning in the back hall, looking over the water. That's why I call the house the Temple of Vesta."
"Day and night?"
"No, no! lights it at sunset every evening regularly. Sun dips, Vesta lights her lamp. Pretty? I think so."
"Affecting, certainly!" said the young doctor. "And she has mourned her lover ever since?"
The old doctor gave him a quaint look. "People don't mourn thirty years," he said, "unless their minds are diseased. Women mourn longer than men, of course, but ten years would be a long limit, even for a woman. Memory, of course, may last as long as life—sacred and tender memory,"—his voice dropped a little, and he passed his hand across his forehead,—"but not mourning. Vesta is a little pensive, a little silent; more habit than anything else now. A sweet woman; the sweetest—"
The old doctor seemed to forget his companion, and flicked the old brown horse pensively, as they jogged along, saying no more.
The young doctor waited a little before he put his next question.
"The two ladies live alone always?"
"Yes—no!" said the old doctor, coming out of his reverie. "There's Diploma Crotty, help, tyrant, governor-in-chief of the kitchen. Now and then she thinks they'd better have a visitor, and tells them so; but not very often, it upsets her kitchen. But here we are at the parsonage, and I'll take you in."
The young doctor made his visit at the parsonage dutifully and carefully. He meant to make a good impression wherever he went. It was no such easy matter to take the place of the old doctor, who, after a lifetime of faithful and loving work, had been ordered off for a year's rest and travel; but the young doctor had plenty of courage, and meant to do his best. He answered evasively the inquiry of the minister's wife as to where he meant to board; and though he noted down carefully the addresses she gave him of nice motherly women who would keep his things in order, and have an eye to him in case he should be ailing, he did not intend to trouble these good ladies if he could help himself.
"I want to live in that brick house!" he said to himself. "I'll have a try for it, anyhow. The old ladies can't be insulted by my telling them they have the best house in the village."
After dinner he went for a walk, and strolled along the pleasant shady street. There were many good houses, for Elmerton was an old village. Vessels had come into her harbour in bygone days, and substantial merchant captains had built the comfortable, roomy mansions which stretched their ample fronts under the drooping elms, while their back windows looked out over the sea, breaking at the very foot of their garden walls. But there was no house that compared, in the young doctor's mind, with the Temple of Vesta. He was walking slowly past it, admiring the delicate tracery on the white window-sills, when the door opened, and a lady came out. The young doctor observed her as she came down the steps; it was his habit to observe everything. The lady was past sixty, tall and erect, and walked stiffly.
"Rheumatic!" said the young doctor, and ran over in his mind certain remedies which he had found effective in rheumatism.
She was dressed in sober gray silk, made in the fashion of thirty years before, and carried an ancient parasol with a deep silk fringe. As she reached the sidewalk she dropped her handkerchief. Standing still a moment, she regarded it with grave displeasure, then tried to take it up on the point of her parasol. In an instant the young doctor had crossed the street, picked up the handkerchief, and offered it to her with a bow and a pleasant smile.
"I thank you, sir!" said Miss Phoebe Blyth. "You are extremely obliging."
"Don't mention it, please!" said the young doctor. "It was a pleasure. Have I the honour of speaking to Miss Blyth? I am Doctor Strong. Doctor Stedman may have spoken to you of me."
"He has indeed done so!" said Miss Phoebe; and she held out her silk-gloved hand with dignified cordiality. "I am glad to make your acquaintance, sir. I shall hope to have the pleasure of welcoming you at my house at an early date."
"Thank you! I shall be most happy. May I walk along with you, as we seem to be going the same way? I have been admiring your house so very much, Miss Blyth. It is the finest specimen of its kind I have ever seen. How fine that tracery is over the windows; and how seldom you see a fan so graceful as that! Should you object to my making a sketch of it some day? I'm very much interested in Colonial houses."
A faint red crept into Miss Phoebe's cheek; it was one of her dreams to have an oil-painting of her house. The young doctor had found a joint in her harness.
"I should be indeed pleased—" she began; and, being slightly fluttered, she dropped her handkerchief again, and again the young doctor picked it up and handed it to her.
"I am distressed!" said Miss Phoebe. "I am—somewhat hampered by rheumatism, Doctor Strong. It is not uncommon in persons of middle age."
"No, indeed! My mother—I mean my aunt—younger sister of my mother's— used to suffer terribly with rheumatism. I was fortunate enough to be able to relieve her a good deal. If you would like to try the prescription, Miss Blyth, it is entirely at your service. Not professionally, please understand, not professionally; a mere neighbourly attention. I hope we shall be neighbours. Don't mention it, please don't, because I shall be so glad, you know. Besides—you have a little look of my—aunt; she has very regular features."
Miss Phoebe thanked him with a rather tremulous dignity; he was a most courteous and attractive young man, but so impetuous, that she felt a disturbance of her cool blood. It was singular, though, how little dear Doctor Stedman had been able to do for her rheumatism, for as many years as he had been attending her. Perhaps newer methods— it must be confessed that Doctor Stedman was growing old.
"Where do you intend to lodge, Doctor Strong?" she asked, by way of changing the subject gracefully.
The young doctor did not know, was quite at a loss.
"There is only one house that I want to lodge in!" he said, and his bold face had grown suddenly timid, like a schoolboy's. "That is, of course there are plenty of good houses in the village, Miss Blyth, excellent houses, and excellent people in them, I have no doubt; but— well, there is only one house for me. You know what house I mean, Miss Blyth, because you know how one can feel about a really fine house. The moment I saw it I said, 'That is the house for me!' But Doctor Stedman said there was no possible chance of my getting taken in there."
"I really do not know how Doctor Stedman should speak with authority on the subject!" said Miss Phoebe Blyth.
Young doctor! young doctor! is this the way you are going to comport yourself in the village of Elmerton? If so, there will be flutterings indeed in the dove-cotes. Before night the whole village knew that the young doctor was going to board with the Blyth girls!
THE YOUNG DOCTOR
"And he certainly is a remarkable young man!" said Miss Phoebe Blyth. "Is he not, Sister Vesta?"
Miss Vesta came out of her reverie; not with a start,—she never started,—but with the quiet awakening, like that of a baby in the morning, that was peculiar to her.
"Yes! oh, yes!" she said. "I consider him so. I think his coming providential."
"How so?" asked the visitor. There was a slight acidity in her tone, for Mrs. Weight was one of the motherly persons mentioned by the minister's wife, and had looked forward to caring for the young doctor herself. With her four children, all croupy, it would have been convenient to have a physician in the house, and as the wife of the senior deacon, what could be more proper?
"I must say he doesn't look remarkable," she added; "but the light-complected seldom do, to my mind."
"It is years," said Miss Vesta, "since Sister Phoebe has suffered so little with her rheumatism. Doctor Strong understands her constitution as no one else ever has done, not even dear Doctor Stedman. Sister Phoebe can stoop down now like a girl; can't you, Sister Phoebe? It is a long time since she has been able to stoop down."
Miss Vesta's soft white face glowed with pleasure; it was a gentle glow, like that at the heart of certain white roses.
Mrs. Weight showed little enthusiasm.
"I never have rheumatism!" she said, briefly. "I've always wore gold beads. If you'd have tried gold beads, Phoebe, or a few raisins in your pocket, it's my belief you'd never have had all this trouble."
It was now Miss Phoebe's turn to colour, but hers was the hard red of a winter pear.
"I am not superstitious, Anna Maria," she said. "Doctor Strong considers gold beads for rheumatism absurd, and I fully agree with him. As for raisins in the pocket, that is nonsense, of course."
"It's best to be sure of your facts before reflecting upon other folks' statements!" said Mrs. Weight, with dignity. "I know whereof I speak, Phoebe. Father Weight is ninety years old this very month, and he has carried raisins for forty years, and never had a twinge of rheumatism in all that time. The same raisins, too; they have hardened into stone, as you may say, with what they have absorbed. I don't need to see things clearer than that."
"H'm!" said Miss Phoebe, with the suspicion of a sniff. "Did he ever have it before?"
"I wasn't acquainted with him before," said Mrs. Weight, stiffly.
There was a pause; then the visitor went on, dropping her voice with a certain mystery. "You may talk of superstition, Phoebe, but I must say I'd sooner be what some folks call superstitious than have no belief at all. I don't wish to reflect upon any person, but I must say that, in my opinion, Doctor Strong is little better than an infidel. To see a perishing human creature set himself up against the Ordering of Providence is a thing I am sorry to meet with in this parish."
"Has Doctor Strong set himself against Providence?" asked Miss Phoebe, her back very rigid, her knitting-needles pointed in stern interrogation.
"You shall judge for yourselves, girls!" Mrs. Weight spoke with unction. "At the same time, I wish it to be understood that what I say is for this room only; I am not one to spread abroad. Well! it has never been doubted, to my knowledge, that the lower animals are permitted to absorb diseases from children, who have immortal souls to save. Even Doctor Stedman, who is advanced enough in all conscience, never denied that in my hearing. Well! Mrs. Ezra Sloper— I don't know whether you are acquainted with her, girls; I have my butter of her. She lives out on the Saugo Road; a most respectable woman. She has a child with a hump back; fell when it was a baby, and never got over it. I found she wasn't doing anything for the child,—nice little boy, four years old; hump growing right out of his shoulders. I said to her, 'Susan,' I said, 'you want to get a little dog, and let it sleep with that child, and let the child play with it all he can, and get real attached to it. If anything will cure the child, that will.'
"She said, 'Mis' Weight,' she said, 'I'll do it!' and she did. She thanked me, too, as grateful as ever I was thanked. Well, girls,"— Mrs. Weight leaned forward, her hands on her knees, and spoke slowly and impressively,—"as true as I sit here, in three months' time that dog was humpbacked, and growing more so every day."
She paused, drawing a long breath of triumph, and looked from one to the other of her hearers.
"Well!" said Miss Phoebe, dryly. "Did the child get well? And where does Doctor Strong's infidelity come in?"
"The child would have got well," said Mrs. Weight, with tragic emphasis. "The child might be well, or near it, this living day of time, if the Ordering of Providence had not been interfered with. The child had a spell of stomach trouble, and Doctor Strong was sent for. He ordered the dog out of the house; said it had fleas, and sore eyes, and I don't know what. Susan Sloper is a weak woman, and she gave in, and that child goes humpbacked to its grave. I hope Doctor Strong is prepared to answer for it at the Last Day."
Miss Phoebe laid down her knitting-needles; but before she could reply, Doctor Strong himself came in, bringing the breeze with him.
"How do you do, Mrs. Weight?" he said, heartily. "How is Billy? croupy again? Does he go out every day? Do you keep his window open at night, and give him a cold bath every morning? Fresh air and bathing are absolutely necessary, you know, with that tendency. Have you taken off all that load of flannel?"
Mrs. Weight muttered something about supper-time, and fled before the questioner. The young doctor turned to his hostess, with the quick, merry smile he had. "I had to send her away!" he said. "You are flushed, Miss Blyth, and Miss Vesta is tired. Yes, you are, Miss Vesta; what is the use of denying it?"
He placed a cushion behind Miss Vesta, and she nestled against it with a little comfortable sigh. She looked at the young doctor kindly, and he returned the look with one of frank affection.
"Your mother must have had a sight of comfort with you," said Miss Vesta. "You are a home boy, any one can see that."
"I know when I am well off!" said the young doctor.
Geoffrey Strong certainly was well off. In some singular way, which no one professed wholly to understand, he had won the confidence of both the "Blyth girls," who were usually considered the most exclusive and "stand-offish" people in Elmerton. He made no secret of being in love with Miss Vesta. He declared that no one could see her without being in love with her. "Because you are so lovely, you know!" he said to her half a dozen times a day. The remark never failed to call up a soft blush, and a gentle "Don't, I pray you, my dear young friend; you shock me!"
"But I like to shock you," the young doctor would reply. "You look prettiest when you are shocked." And then Miss Vesta would shake her pretty white curls (she was not more than sixty, but her hair had been gray since her youth), and say that if he went on so she must really call Sister Phoebe; and Master Geoffrey would go off laughing.
He did not make love to Miss Phoebe, but was none the less intimate with her in frank comradeship. Rheumatism was their first bond. Doctor Strong meant to make rather a specialty of rheumatism and kindred complaints, and studied Miss Phoebe's case with ardour. Every new symptom was received with kindling eye and eager questionings. It was worst in her back this morning? So! now how would she describe the pain? Was it acute, darting, piercing? No? Dull, then! Would she call it grinding, boring, pressing? Ah! that was most interesting. And for other symptoms—yes! yes! that naturally followed; he should have expected that.
"In fact, Miss Blyth, you really are a magnificent case!" and the young doctor glowed with enthusiasm. (This was when he first came to live in the Temple of Vesta.) "I mean to relieve your suffering; I'll put every inch there is of me into it. But, meantime, there ought to be some consolation in the knowledge that you are a most beautiful and interesting case."
What woman,—I will go farther,—what human being could withstand this? Miss Phoebe was a firm woman, but she was clay in the hands of the young doctor,—the more so that he certainly did help her rheumatism wonderfully.
More than this, their views ran together in other directions. Both disapproved of matrimony, not in the abstract, but in the concrete and personal view. They had long talks together on the subject, after Miss Vesta had gone to bed, sitting in the quaint parlour, which both considered the pleasantest room in the world. The young doctor, tongs in hand (he was allowed to pick up the brands and to poke the fire, a fire only less sacred than that of Miss Vesta's lamp), would hold forth at length, to the great edification of Miss Phoebe, as she sat by her little work-table knitting complacently.
"It's all right for most men," he would say. "It steadies them, and does them good in a hundred ways. Oh, yes, I approve highly of marriage, as I am sure you do, Miss Blyth; but not for a physician, at least a young physician. A young physician must be able to give his whole thought, his whole being, so to speak, to his profession. There's too much of it for him to divide himself up. Why, take a single specialty; take rheumatism. If I gave my lifetime, or twenty lifetimes, to the study of that one malady, I should not begin to learn the A B C of it."
"One learns a good deal when one has it!" said poor Miss Phoebe.
"Yes, of course, and I am speaking the simple truth when I say that I wish I could have it for you, Miss Blyth. I should have—it would be most instructive, most illuminating. Some day we shall have all that regulated, and medical students will go through courses of disease as well as of study. I look forward to that, though it will hardly come in my time. Rheumatism and kindred diseases, say two terms; fever, two terms—no, three, for you would want to take in yellow and typhus, as well as ordinary typhoid. Cholera—well, of course there would be difficulties, but you see the principle. Well, but we were talking about marriage. Now, you see, with all these new worlds opening before him, the physician cannot possibly be thinking of falling in love—"
Miss Phoebe blinked, and coloured slightly. She sometimes wished Doctor Strong would not use such forcible language.
"Of falling in love and marrying. In common justice to his wife, he has no business to marry her; I mean, of course, the person who might be his wife. Up all night, driving about the country all day,— no woman ought to be asked to share such a life. In fact, the one reason that might justify a physician in marrying—and I admit it might be a powerful one—would be where it afforded special facilities for the study of disease. An obscure and complicated case of neurasthenia, now,—but these things are hardly practicable; besides, a man would have to be a Mormon. No, no, let lawyers marry young; business men, parsons,—especially parsons, because they need filling out as a rule,—but not doctors."
The young doctor paused, and gave his whole vigorous mind to the fire for a moment. It was in a precarious condition, and the brands had to be built up in careful and precise fashion, with red coals tucked in neatly here and there. Then he took the bellows in hand, and blew steadily and critically, with keen eyes bent on the smouldering brands. A few seconds of breathless waiting, and a jet of yellow flame sprang up, faltered, died out, sprang up again, and crept flickering in and out among the brands powdered white with ashes. Now it was a strong, leaping flame, and all the room shone out in its light; the ancient Turkey carpet, with its soft blending of every colour into a harmonious no-colour; the quaint portraits, like court-cards in tarnished gilt frames; the teak-wood chairs and sofas, with their delicate spindle-legs, and backs inlaid with sandalwood; Miss Phoebe's work-table, with its bag of faded crimson damask, and Miss Phoebe herself, pleasant to look upon in her dove-coloured cashmere gown, with her kerchief of soft net.
The young doctor, glancing around, saw all these things in the light of his newly-resuscitated fire; and seeing, gave a little sigh of comfort, and laying down the bellows, leaned back in his chair again.
"You were going to say something, Miss Blyth?" he said, in his eager way. "Please go on! I had to save the fire, don't you know? it was on its last legs—coals, I should say. Please go on, won't you?"
Miss Phoebe coughed. She had been brought up not to use the word "leg" freely; "limb" had been considered more elegant, as well as— but medical men, no doubt, took a broader view of these matters.
"I was merely about to remark," she said, with dignity, "that in many ways my views on this subject coincide with yours, Doctor Strong. I have the highest respect for—a—matrimony; it is a holy estate, and the daughter of my honoured parents could ill afford to think lightly of it; yet in a great many cases I own it appears to me a sad waste of time and energy. I have noted in my reading, both secular and religious, that though the married state is called holy, the term 'blessed' is reserved for a single life. Women of clinging nature, or those with few interests, doubtless do well to marry, a suitable partner being provided; but for a person with the full use of her faculties, and with rational occupation more than sufficient to fill her time, I admit I am unable to conceive the attraction of it. I speak for myself; my sister Vesta has other views. My sister Vesta had a disappointment in early life. From my point of view, she would have been far better off without the unfortunate attachment which—though to a very worthy person—terminated so sadly. But my sister is not of my opinion. She has a clinging, affectionate nature, my sister Vesta."
"She's an angel!" said Doctor Strong.
"You are right, my friend, you are very right!" said Miss Phoebe; and her cap strings trembled with affection. "There is an angelic quality, surely, in my sister Vesta. She might have been happy—I trust she would have been—if Providence had been pleased to call her to the married estate. But for me, Doctor Strong, no! I have always said, and I shall always say, while I have the use of my faculties—no! I thank you for the honour you do me; I appreciate the sentiments to which you have given utterance; but I can never be yours."
To any third party who had seen Miss Phoebe, drawn up erect in her chair, uttering these words with chiselled majesty, and Doctor Strong, bellows in hand, his bright eyes fixed upon her, receiving them with kindling attention, it might certainly have appeared as if he had been making her an offer of marriage; but the thought would have been momentary, for when the good lady ceased, the young doctor chimed in heartily:
"Quite right! quite right, I'm sure, Miss Blyth. He'd be absurd to think of such a thing, you know; the idea of your wasting your time! That's what I say to fellows; 'How can you waste your time, when you'll be dead before you know it anyhow, and not have had time to look about you, much less learn anything?' No, sir,—I beg your pardon, ma'am! A single life for me. My own time, my own will, and my own way!"
Miss Phoebe looked at him with very kind eyes.
"Doctor Strong," she said, "I think—it is no light thing for me to say, holding the convictions I do—but I think you are worthy of single blessedness!"
Miss Vesta was trimming her lamp. That meant, in this early summer season, that it was after seven o'clock. The little lady stood at the window in the upper hall. It was a broad window, with a low round arch, looking out on the garden and the sea beyond it. A bracket was fastened to the sill, and on this bracket stood the lamp that Miss Vesta was trimming. (It was against all fitness, as Miss Phoebe said, that a lamp should be trimmed at this hour. Every other lamp in the house was in perfect order by nine o'clock in the morning; but it was Miss Vesta's fancy to trim this lamp in the evening, and Miss Phoebe made a point of indulging her sister's fancies when she conscientiously could.)
It was a brass lamp of quaint pattern, and the brass shone so that several Miss Vestas, with faces curiously distorted, looked out at the real one, as she daintily brushed off the burnt wicking, and, after filling and lighting the lamp, replaced the brilliantly polished chimney. She watched the flame as it crept along the wick; then, when it burned steady and clear, she folded her hands with a little contented gesture, and looked out of the window.
The sun had set. The sea on which Miss Vesta looked was a water of gold, shimmering here and there into opal; only where it broke on the shingle at the garden foot, the water was its usual colour of a chrysophrase, with a rim of ivory where it touched the shore. The window was open, and a light breeze blew from the water; blew across the garden, and brought with it scents of lilac, syringa, and June roses. It was a pleasant hour, and Miss Vesta was well content. She liked even better the later evening, when the glow would fade from the west, and her lamp would shed its own path of gold across the water; but this was pleasant enough.
"It is a very sightly evening!" said Miss Vesta, in the soft half-voice in which she often talked to herself. "Good Lord, I beseech thee, protect all souls at sea this night; for Jesus Christ's sake; amen!"
This was the prayer that Miss Vesta had offered every evening for thirty years. As often as she repeated it, the sea before her eyes changed, and she saw a stretch of black tossing water, with foam-crests that the lightning turned to pale fire; a sail drove across her window, dipped, and disappeared. Miss Vesta closed her eyes.
But as the old doctor said, people do not mourn for thirty years; when she opened her eyes, they were grave, but serene. "It is a very sightly evening!" she repeated. She leaned out of the window, and drew in long breaths of sweetness. Presently the sweetness was crossed by a whiff of a different fragrance, pungent, aromatic,—the fragrance of tobacco. Doctor Strong was smoking his evening cigar in the garden. He would not have thought of smoking in the house, even if Miss Phoebe would have allowed it; he smoked as he rode on his morning round, and he took his evening cigar, as now, in the garden. Miss Vesta saw him now, in the growing dusk, striding up and down; not hastily, but with energy and determination in every stride. Her eyes dwelt upon him affectionately; she had grown very fond of him. It was delightful to her to have this young, vigorous creature in the house, fairly electric with life and joy and strength; she felt younger every time she saw him. He was good to look at, too, though no one would have called him a beauty. Tall and well-made, his head properly set on shoulders that were perhaps the least bit too square; his fair hair cropped close, in hope of destroying the curl that would still creep into it in spite of him; his hazel eyes as bright as eyes could be, his skin healthy red and brown,—yes, the young doctor was good to look at. So Miss Vesta thought. There was a little look, too—it could hardly be called a resemblance—yet he reminded her somehow—Miss Vesta's face changed from a white to a pink rose, and she said, softly, "If I had had a son, he might have looked like this. The Lord be with him and give him grace!"
As Miss Vesta watched him, Geoffrey Strong stopped to examine something in one of the borders; stooped, hands on knees, and scrutinised a certain plant; then, glancing upward as he straightened himself, saw Miss Vesta at the window looking down at him.
"Hurrah!" he cried. "Come down, Miss Vesta, won't you, please? you are the very person I want. I want to show you something."
"Surely!" said Miss Vesta. "I will be with you in a moment, Doctor Strong; only let me get a head-covering from my room."
When she had left the window, Geoffrey was almost sorry he had called her; she made such a pretty picture standing there, framed in the broad window, the evening light falling softly on her soft face and silver hair. It was so nice of her to wear white in the evening! Why didn't old ladies always wear white? when they were pretty, he added, reflecting that Miss Phoebe in white would be an alarming vision. His mind still on Miss Vesta, he quoted half aloud:
"A still, sweet, placid, moonlight face, And slightly nonchalant, Which seems to hold a middle place Between one's love and aunt."
"I wish you were my aunt!" he exclaimed, abruptly, when Miss Vesta appeared a few minutes later, with a screen of delicate white wool over her head and shoulders.
"Is that what you wished to say to me?" asked Miss Vesta, somewhat bewildered.
"No! oh, no! I was only thinking what a perfect aunt you would make. No, I wanted to show you something; a line out of Browning, illustrated in life; one of my favourite lines. See here, Miss Vesta!"
Miss Vesta looked.
"I see nothing," she began. "Oh, yes, a miller! Is that it, Doctor Strong? Quite a curious miller. The study of insect life is no doubt—"
"A moth! don't you see?" cried the young doctor. "On the phlox, the white phlox."
"'And here she paused in her gracious talk To point me a moth on the milk-white phlox.'"
"Don't you remember, in the 'Garden Fancies?'"
But Miss Vesta did not remember.
Didn't she know Browning?
She confessed that she did not. She had fancied that he was not quite— she hardly thought that ladies did read his works to any extent. "Cowper was my favourite poet in my youth," she said, "and I was very fond of Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Barbauld. Their poetry is at once elegant and elevated in tone and spirit. I hope you agree with me, Doctor Strong?"
"I don't know!" said Geoffrey, "I never read 'em. But Shelley, Miss Vesta! you love Shelley, I'm sure? He would have loved you so, you know."
Miss Vesta's quiet face showed a little trouble. "Mr. Shelley's poetry," she said, hesitatingly, "is very beautiful. He was—some one I once knew was devoted to Mr. Shelley's poetry. He—used to read it to me. But Sister Phoebe thought Mr. Shelley's religious views were—a—not what one would wish, and she objected to my following the study."
"He wrote about moths, too," said Geoffrey, abstractedly. "The desire of the moth for the star, you know. Those things make you feel queer when they come to you out here, with all these lights and dusks and smells. Now I wonder why!"
Miss Vesta looked at him kindly. "Perhaps there is some tender association," she said, gently, "such as is natural at your age, my dear young friend."
"Not an association!" said Geoffrey, stoutly. "Never had one in my life. It's only in a general way. These things stir one up, somehow; it's a form of mental intoxication. Do you think a man could get drunk on sunset and phlox, Miss Vesta?"
"Oh, I trust not, I trust not!" said Miss Vesta, hurriedly, and she made haste to change the subject. She as well as her sister found the young doctor's expressions overstrong at times, yet she loved the lad.
"The roses are at their sweetest now," she said, leading the conversation gently away from the too passionate white phlox, on which the moth was still waving its wings drowsily. "This black damask is considered very fine, but I love the old-fashioned June roses best."
"'She loves you, noble roses, I know!'" said Geoffrey, who certainly was not himself to-night. "This one is exactly like you, Miss Vesta. Look at it; just the colour of ivory with a little sunset mixed in. Now you know what you look like."
"Oh, hush, my dear young friend!" said Miss Vesta. "You must not— really, you know—talk in this way. But—it is curious that you should have noticed that particular rose; it—it is the kind I used to wear when I was young."
She looked up at the lamp in the window. Geoffrey's eyes followed hers. Involuntarily he laid his hand on hers. "Dear Miss Vesta!" he said, and his strong, hearty voice could be very gentle. "Miss Blyth told me. Does it still hurt, dear lady?"
Miss Vesta's breath fluttered for a moment, but it was only a moment. Her soft white fingers, cool as rose-leaves, returned the pressure of his affectionately. "No, my—my dear," she said. "It does not hurt— now. There is no pain now, only memory; blessed, blessed memory. He— there is something—you remind me of him a little, Doctor Geoffrey."
They stood silent, the young man and the old woman, hand in hand in the soft evening. The splendour in the west died out, and soft clouds of gray and purple brooded like wings over the sea. The water deepened from gold to glimmering gray, from gray to deep brown and blue. In one spot a faint glimmer trembled on the waves; the light from Miss Vesta's lamp. The little lady gazed at it long, then looked up into the strong young face above her.
"He was—your age!" she said, hurrying the words out in a low murmur, hardly louder than the night breeze in the tall lilac-trees. "He was bright and strong and gay like you; his sun went down while it was yet day. The Lord took him into his holy keeping. I wish—I wish you all the joy I should have tried to give him, Doctor Geoffrey. I wish your life fortunate and brave, and your love happy; more than all, your love happy."
She pressed his hand, and went quietly away; came back for a moment to pat his arm and say she trusted she had not distressed him, and beg him not to stay out too long in the night air; then went into the house, closing the door softly after her.
Left alone, Geoffrey Strong fell to his pacing again, up and down the neat gravel paths with their tall box hedges. His face was very tender; looking at it, one might know he had been a loving son to his mother. But presently he frowned over his cigar, and then laughed, and went and shook the unoffending moth (it was a rare one, if he had been thinking of that kind of thing) off the phlox.
"All the more reason, Stupid!" he said to the moth, as it flew away. "A man goes and gets a girl to care for him, and then he goes and plays some fool trick—like as not this chap had his sheet tied—and leaves her alone the rest of her life. Just look at this sweet old angel, will you? it's a shame. No, sir, no woman in mine, thank you!"
He paced again. The moth fluttered off in the gloom; fluttered back, hovered, then settled once more on the milk-white phlox, which glimmered like a fragrant ghost in the half-light. The perfume rose from the flowers and mingled with the delicate scent of the roses and the heavier breath of lilac and syringa.
"'Where I find her not, beauties vanish; Whither I follow her, beauties flee. Is there no method to tell her in Spanish"—
"Oh, I must be drunk!" said Doctor Geoffrey. He tried another path. A new fragrance met him, the keen, clean, cruelly sweet smell of honeysuckle. Browning was gone with the phlox and the roses; and what was this coming unbidden into his head, crisp and clean and possessing, like the honeysuckle?
"'Where e're she be, That not impossible She Who shall command my life and me"—
"I am drunk!" said Geoffrey Strong. And he threw away his cigar and went to bed.
"I fear Doctor Strong will be very much put out!" said Miss Phoebe Blyth.
Miss Vesta sighed, and stirred her coffee delicately. "It is unfortunate!" she said.
"Unfortunate! my dearest Vesta, it is calamitous. Just when he is comfortably settled in surroundings which he feels to be congenial"— Miss Phoebe bridled, and glanced round the pleasant dining-room— "to have these surroundings invaded by what he dislikes most in the world, a girl, and a sick girl at that; I tell you it would not surprise me if he should give notice at once."
This was not quite true, for Miss Phoebe would have been greatly surprised at Doctor Strong's doing anything of the kind; but she enjoyed saying it, and felt rather better after it.
"We could not possibly refuse, though, Sister Phoebe," said Miss Vesta, mildly. "Little Vesta being my name-child, and Brother Nathaniel without faculty, as one may say,—and it is certainly no place for her at home."
"My dearest Vesta, I have not been entirely deprived of my senses!" Miss Phoebe spoke with some asperity. "Of course we cannot refuse, and of course we must do our utmost for our brother's motherless child; but none the less, it is calamitous, I repeat; and I am positive that Doctor Strong will be greatly annoyed."
At this moment Geoffrey came in, full of apologies for his ten minutes' tardiness. The apologies were graciously received. The Miss Blyths would never have thought of such a thing as being late to breakfast themselves, but they were not ill-pleased to have their lodger, occasionally—not too often—sleep beyond the usual hour. It showed that he felt at home, Miss Phoebe said, and Miss Vesta, the mother-instinct brooding over the lad she loved, thought he needed all the sleep he could get, and more.
"It's really disgraceful!" said the young doctor for the third time, as he drew his chair up to the table. "Yes, please, three lumps. There never was such coffee in the world, Miss Blyth. I believe the Sultan sends it to you from his own private coffee-garden. Creamed chicken? won't I? and muffins, and marmalade,—what a blessing to be naturally greedy! More pain this morning, Miss Blyth? I hope not." His quick eye had seen the cloud on his hostess's brow, and he was all attention and sympathy over his coffee-cup.
"I thank you, Doctor Strong; I feel little pain this morning; in fact, I may almost say none. But I—we have been somewhat disturbed by the contents of a letter we have received."
"Bad news?" cried Geoffrey. "I'm so sorry! Is there anything I can do, Miss Blyth? You will command me, of course; send telegrams or—"
"I—thank you! You are always most kind and considerate, Doctor Strong. The fact is"—Miss Phoebe hesitated, casting about in her mind for the best way of breaking the news,—"the fact is, my brother is a widower."
"Very sad, I'm sure!" murmured Geoffrey Strong. "Was it sudden? these shocks are terribly trying. How did she—"
"Oh—no! you misapprehend me, Doctor Strong. Not sudden, nor—nor what you would call recent. It is some years since Nathaniel's wife died."
"Old gentleman going to pass away himself?" said Geoffrey, but not aloud; he was aware of his tendency to headlong plunges; it was manifestly better to wait further explanations and not commit himself.
"My brother has an only daughter," Miss Phoebe went on, "a girl of twenty. She has been at college (I strongly disapproved of her going, but the child is headstrong), and has worked beyond her strength. She— that is, her father, is anxious for her to come and pass a month or two with us; he thinks the sea air will benefit her."
"No doubt it will!" said Geoffrey, still awaiting the catastrophe. It was a great bore, of course, in fact a nuisance, but it couldn't be helped.
"This—this is what has troubled us, Doctor Strong. We fear, my sister and I, that the presence of a young—person of the other sex— will be disturbing to you."
Miss Vesta looked up quickly, but said nothing. Geoffrey looked bewildered for a moment, then laughed aloud, colouring like a schoolboy. "Why, Miss Blyth, what must you think of me?" he said. "I am not particularly given to—to the society of young ladies, but I am not such a misogynist as all that."
Miss Phoebe did not know what a misogynist was, and did not like to ask; there were so many dangerous and levelling doctrines about, as her father always said. Whatever it was, she was heartily glad that Doctor Strong did not believe in it.
"Vesta is a good child," said Miss Vesta. "She makes no noise or trouble in the house, even when she is well. We shall of course see that your convenience is not interfered with in any way, Doctor Strong."
"If you talk like that, I shall pack my trunk and go to-morrow," said Geoffrey, decidedly; "and I don't want to go a bit. It's I who am likely to be in the way, so far as I can see; but you won't send me off just yet, will you?"
When Geoffrey Strong smiled, people were apt to do what he wished, unless they were ill-conditioned people indeed, and Miss Phoebe and Miss Vesta were far from ill-conditioned.
"I've never been so happy anywhere," the young man went on in his eager way, "since—since my own home was broken up. I'd stay if you would let me, if there were twenty—I—I mean, of course it will be delightful to—may I have another muffin, please? Thanks!" Geoffrey had broken short off, being a person of absolute honesty.
"I trust your niece is not seriously out of health," he said, in conclusion, with his most professional air. "Is any malady indicated, or merely overfatigue?"
Miss Phoebe put on her spectacles and took up the letter. "There is a word," she said, "that I did not understand, I must confess. If you will allow me, Doctor Strong, I will read you a portion of my brother's remarks. A—yes! 'Vesta seems very far from well. She cries, and will not eat, and she looks like a ghost. The doctor calls it neurasthenia.'"
Doctor Strong uttered an exclamation. Miss Phoebe looked up in dismay.
"It is nothing contagious, I trust, Doctor Strong?"
"No! no! nothing of the kind. Go on, please! any more symptoms?"
"I think not. She has no appetite, he says, and does not sleep well. He says nothing of any rash." Miss Phoebe looked anxiously at the young doctor. To her amazement, he was leaning forward, muffin in hand, his face wearing its brightest and most eager look.
"Is that all?" he said. "Well—of course that's not professional. Very likely the physician there will send a written diagnosis if you ask him. You see, Miss Blyth, this is very interesting to me. I want to make a study of nerves,—that's all the word means, disordered nerves,—and it will be the greatest pleasure to me to try to be of service to your niece; if you should wish it, that is."
"Oh, Doctor Strong! you are too kind!" said both ladies in duet.
They were so relieved, they overflowed in little grateful courtesies. He must have more cream; he was eating nothing. They feared his egg was not quite—was he positively sure? it would sometimes happen, with the greatest care, that eggs were not quite—a little scrap more bacon, then! or would he fancy some fresh cream cheese? and so on and so on, till the young doctor cried out, and said that if he ate any more he should not be able to mount his bicycle, far less ride it.
"By the way," he added, "I didn't see you when I came in last night. I hope I didn't disturb either of you. No? That's right; if I ever make a noise coming in late, shoot me at sight, please. You took the powder, Miss Blyth? and slept well? Hurrah! Well, I was going to say, I had a rather amusing time at Shellback."
Shellback was a village some ten miles off, whither he had been summoned the evening before. Both ladies brightened up. They delighted to hear of the young doctor's experiences.
"I don't suppose you know," Doctor Strong went on,—"no, you wouldn't be likely to,—an old man named Butters, Ithuriel Butters? Quaint name! suggests 'Paradise Lost' and buns. Old Man Butters they call him. Well, I went to see him; and I got a lesson in therapeutics, and two recipes for curing rheumatism, beside. I think I must try one of them on you, Miss Blyth."
Miss Phoebe, who was literal, was about to assure him that she was amply satisfied with the remedies already in use; but he went on, in high enjoyment, evidently seeing almost with his bodily vision the figures he conjured up.
"It seems the old gentleman didn't want me sent for; in fact, the family had done it on the sly, being alarmed at certain symptoms new to them. I got out there, and found the old fellow sitting in his armchair, smoking his pipe; fine-looking old boy, white hair and beard, and all that. Looked me all over, and asked me what I wanted. Wife and daughter kept out of the way, evidently scared at what they had done. I went in alone. I said I had come to see him.
"'All right,' says he. 'No extra charge!' and he shut his eyes, and smoked away for dear life. Presently he opened his eyes, and looked at me again.
"'Like my looks?' he says.
"'Yes,' said I. I thought he might have returned the compliment, but he didn't; he only grunted. I waited a bit, talked of this and that; at last I said, 'How are you feeling this evening, Mr. Butters?'
"'First-rate!' said he. 'How be you?'
"'I'm all right,' said I,' but I don't believe you are, sir. You are not the right colour at all.'
"'What colour be I? not green, I calc'late!' Then we both laughed, and felt better. I asked if I might smoke, too, and took out my pipe. Pretty soon the old fellow began to talk.
"'My women-folks sent for you, did they? I suspicioned they had. Fact, I was slim this mornin'; took slim suddin, whilest I was milkin'. Didn't relish my victuals, and that scairt the woman. But I took my physic, and, come afternoon, I was spryer 'n a steer agin.'
"'What is your physic, if I may ask, Mr. Butters?'
"'Woodpile!' says the old fellow.
"'Woodpile?' said I.
"'Cord o' wood. Axe. Sweat o' the brow. Them's the best physic I know of.'
"He smoked on for a bit, and I sat and looked at him, admiring how the world was made. I don't know whether you read Kipling, Miss Vesta. I was rewarded for my patience.
"'Young feller,' said the old man, after awhile, 'how old do you s'pose I be?'
"'Seventy,' said I; and he looked it, not a day over.
"'Add fifteen to that,' says he, 'and you have it. Eighty-five year last Jenooary. You are under thirty, I reckon? Thought so! Well, I was gettin' on for sixty year old when you was born. See?'
"I did see, but I wasn't going to give in yet. 'Did you ever study medicine, Mr. Butters?' I said.
"'Study medicine? No, sir! but I've lived with my own bones and insides till I know 'em consid'able well; and I've seen consid'able of folks, them as doctored and them as didn't. My wives doctored, all three of 'em. I buried two of 'em, and good ones, too; and, like as not, I'll bury the third. She ain't none too rugged this summer, though she ain't but seventy. But, what I say is, start well, and stay well, and don't werry. You tell your patients that, and fust thing you know you won't have any.'"
"A singularly ignorant person, this Mr. Butters!" said Miss Phoebe.
"I don't know!" said the young doctor. "I'm not so sure about that. I know it would be a bad thing for the medical profession if his ideas were generally taken up. Well, he went on over his pipe. I wish you could have seen him, Miss Vesta. He looked like a veritable patriarch come to life. Fancy Abraham with a T.D. pipe, and you have Ithuriel Butters. Awfully sad for those poor old duffers not to have tobacco. I beg your pardon, Miss Blyth.
"'Yes,' said the old fellow. 'I've seen folks as doctored, and I've seen folks as fooled.'
"'Fooled?' said I.
"'Notions; fool's tricks; idees! Take my brother Reuel. He used to have rheumatiz; had it bad. One day there was a thunder-storm, and he was out gettin' in his hay, and was struck by lightnin'. Fluid run along the rake and spit in his face, he used to say. He lost the use of his eyes and hands for six months, but he never had rheumatiz again for twenty years. Swore it was the electricity; said he swallered it, and it got into his system and cured him. What do you say to that, young feller?'
"'It's an experiment I never tried,' said I. 'I'm not going to commit myself, Mr. Butters. But that's a good story.'
"'Hold on!' said he; 'that ain't all. 'Bout twenty-five years after that—Reuel was gettin' on by that time—he was out fishin', and a squall come up and swamped his boat. He was in the water quite a spell, and come next day he was all doubled up with rheumatiz. He was the maddest man you ever see. He wouldn't do a thing, only sit hunched up in his chair and ask about the weather. It was summer-time, and good hayin' weather as a rule. Bumbye come a fryin' hot day, and sure enough we had a thunder-storm in the afternoon. When it was bangin' away good and solid, Reuel hitched himself out of his chair, took an iron rake in one hand and a hoe in the other, crep' out of the house, and went and sat down under a tree in the middle of the pasture. Wife tried to stop him, but she might as well have tried to stop the lightnin'. Well, sir, the tree was struck, and Reuel never had no more rheumatiz. Couldn't tell which was tree and which was him. That comes of havin' idees.'"
"Dear me!" said Miss Vesta. "What a painful story! His poor wife!"
"Such impious ignorance I think I never heard of!" said Miss Phoebe, rigidly. "I should think the—a—family a most unprofitable one for you to visit, Doctor Strong."
"But so consistent!" said Geoffrey. "Knowing their own minds, and carrying out their own theories of hygiene. It's very refreshing, I must admit. But"—Geoffrey saw that his hostesses were not amused, nor anything but pained and shocked—"this is enough about Ithuriel Butters, isn't it? We decided that he would better take a little something dark-coloured, with a good solid smell to it, to please his 'women-folks;' he'll go out some day like the snuff of a candle, and he knows it. But you don't want to try the lightning cure, do you, Miss Blyth?"
"I most certainly do not!" said Miss Phoebe, concisely; and she reflected that even the best and most intelligent of men might often be lacking in delicate perception.
LETTER-WRITING AND HYSTERICS
The young doctor sat in his room writing. It was a pleasant room, looking upon the garden, and in style and furnishing altogether to the young doctor's taste. He liked the tall narrow mantel, with its delicate mouldings; he liked the white paint, and the high wainscoting against which, the old mahogany came out so well; and he liked the mahogany itself, which was in quaint and graceful shapes. The dimity curtains, too, with their ball and tassel fringe, were of such a fresh clear white. They had never been dirty, they never could be dirty, the young doctor thought; some things must always be fresh and clean; like that girl's dresses. He was sitting in his favourite chair; a chair that stimulated to effort or wooed to repose, according to the attitude one assumed in it. Geoffrey Strong felt a sort of ownership in this chair, for he had discovered the secret pocket in one arm; the tiny panel which, when pressed one day by his careless fingers, slipped aside, revealing a dark polished well, and in the well an ancient vinaigrette of green and gold glass. Sometimes Geoffrey would take out the vinaigrette and sniff its faded perfume, and it told him a new story every time. Now, however, it lay quiet in its nest, for Geoffrey was writing busily.
"You can't laugh any more at me and my old ladies, Jim. There's a new development, a young lady; niece, visitor here, and invalid visitor at that. Neurasthenia, overwork at college, the old story. When will young women learn that they are not young men? Malady in this case takes the form of aversion to the male sex in general, and G. S. in particular. Handsome, sullen creature, tawny hair, eyes no particular colour, but very brilliant; pupils much dilated. I won't bother you with symptoms while you are off on your vacation, but she has some interesting ones. The dear old ladies want me to prescribe for her, but she prefers to play with pills herself. Has a remarkable voice, deep notes now and again that thrill like the middle tones of a 'cello; or might, if they said anything but 'Please pass the butter!' If she were better tempered, I should be tempted to send for you; you are simply spoiling for some one to fall in love with, I can tell that from your last letter. The pretty brunette had not intellectuality enough, had she? My dear fellow, as if that had anything to do with it! You were not ready, that was all. You fall in love by clockwork once every year; and it is time now. If you should see the P. B. again to-morrow, you'd be lost directly. As for me—I should think you would be tired of asking. No, I am not in love. No, I feel no inclination whatever to become so. No, there is no 'charmer' (what vile expressions you use, James; go back to the English Department, and learn how to speak of Woman!) who interests me in the least (except pathologically, of course), except Miss Vesta Blyth, aged sixty. I am in love with her, I grant you; anybody would be, with eyes in his head. Don't I know that I would amount to twice as much if the society of women formed part of my life? Numskull, it does form part of it, a very important part. In the first place, I have my patients. Body of me, my patients! Did I not sit a stricken hour with Mrs. Abigail Plummer yesterday afternoon? She 'feels a crawling in her pipes,'—I'll spare you Mrs. Plummer, but you must hear how Mrs. Cotton cured her lumbago. (I am still hunting rheumatic affections, yes, and always shall be.) She took a quart of rum, my Christian friend; she put into it a pound and a half of sulphur and three-quarters of a pound of cream tartar, and took 'a good swaller' three or four times a day. There's therapeutics for you, sir! Lady weighs three hundred pounds if she does an ounce, and has a colour like a baby's. Well, I could go on indefinitely. That's in the first place. In the second, I have here in this house society that is absolutely to my mind. Experience is life, you grant that. Therefore, the person of experience is the person who really lives. (Of course I admit exceptions.) Therefore, the society of a woman of sixty—an intelligent woman—is infinitely more to be desired than that of a callow girl with nothing but eyes and theories. It is profitable, it is delightful; and this with no hurrying of the heart, no upsetting of the nerves, none of the deplorable symptoms that I observe annually in my friend Mr. James Swift. That for the second place. There is a third. Jim, Jim, do you forget that I was brought up with 'six female cousins, and all of them girls?' They were virtuous young women, every one of them; one or two were good looking; four of them (including the plainest), have married, and I trust their husbands find them interesting. I did not, but I 'learned about women from them,' as the lynx-eyed schoolboy does learn. I divided them into three classes, sugary, vinegary, peppery; to-day I should be more professional; let us say saccharine, acidulated, irritant. These classes still seem to me to include the greater part of young womankind. Sorry to displease, but sich am de facts. And—yes, I still sing 'aber hierathen ist nie mein Sinn!' Business? oh, so so! A country doctor doesn't make a fortune, but he learns a power, if he isn't an idiot. Now here is enough about me, in all conscience. When you write, tell me about yourself, and what the other fellows are doing. After all, that is—"
Geoffrey came to the end of his paper, and paused to take a fresh sheet. Glancing up as he did so, he also glanced out of the window, to see what was going on in the garden. He always liked to keep in touch with the garden, and was on intimate terms with every bird and blossom in it. It was neither bird nor blossom that his eyes lighted on now. A young girl stood on the gravel-path, near his favourite syringa arbour. A hammock hung over her arm, and she carried a book and a pillow. She was looking about her, evidently trying to select a place to hang her hammock. Geoffrey considered her. She was dressed in clear white; her hair, of a tawny reddish yellow, hung in one heavy braid over her shoulder.
"Oh, yes, she is handsome," said Geoffrey, addressing the syringa-bush. "I never said she wasn't handsome. The question is, would she like me to hang that hammock for her, or would she consider it none of my business?"
At this moment the girl dropped the book; then the pillow slipped from her hands. She threw down the hammock with a petulant gesture and stood looking at the syringa-bush as if it were her mortal enemy. Geoffrey Strong laid down his pen.
A few minutes later he came sauntering leisurely around the corner. One would have said he had been spending an hour in the garden, and was now going in.
"Good morning, Miss Blyth! glorious day, isn't it? going to sling a hammock? let me do it, won't you?"
Vesta Blyth looked at him with sombre eyes. "I couldn't hold it!" she said, unwillingly. "There is no strength left in my hands."
"You are still tired, you see," said Geoffrey, cheerfully, as he picked up the hammock. "That's perfectly natural."
"It isn't natural!" said the girl, fiercely. "It's devilish!"
"This is a good place," said Geoffrey, paying no attention to her. "Combination of shade and sun, you see. Pillow at this end? There! how is that?"
"Thank you! it will do very well."
She stretched herself at full length in the hammock. Her movements were perfectly graceful, he noted; and he made a swift comparison with the way his cousins flounced or twittered or slumped into a hammock.
He stood looking at her, his hand still on the hammock-rope. He was conscious only of a friendly feeling of compassion for this fair young creature, built for vigour and an active life, now condemned for months, it might be years, of weariness and pain. Whether any unconscious keenness of scrutiny crept into his eyes or not, is not known; but as Vesta Blyth looked up and met their gaze, a wave of angry crimson rushed over her face and neck.
"Doctor Strong," she said, violently, her voice low and vibrating, as some women's are in passion, "I must request you not to look at me!"
Geoffrey started, and coloured in his turn. "I beg your pardon!" he said. "I was not aware—I assure you I had no intention of being rude, Miss Blyth."
"You were not rude!" Vesta swept on. "I am rude; I am unreasonable, I am absurd. I can't help it. I will not be looked at professionally. Half the people in this village would welcome your professional glance as a beam from heaven, and bask in it, and drop every symptom as if it were a pearl, but I am not a 'case.' I am simply a human being, who asks nothing but to be let alone."
She stopped abruptly, her bosom heaving, her eyes like black agates with fire behind them, looking straight past him at the trees beyond. "If you wish to put me to the last humiliation," she added, hurriedly, "you may wait and have the satisfaction of seeing me cry; if not—"
But Geoffrey was gone, fleeing into the house with the sound of stormy sobs chasing him like Furies. He never stopped till he reached his own room, where he flung himself into his chair in most unprofessional agitation. The window was open—what a fool he was to leave windows open!—and the sound followed him; he could not shut it out. Dreadful sobs, choking, agonising; he felt, as if he saw it, the whole slender figure convulsed with them. Good heavens! the girl would be in convulsions if she went on at this rate.
Now the sobs died away into long moans, into quivering breaths; now they broke out again, insistent, terrible. Broken words among them, too.
"What shall I do? Oh, dear! oh, dear! what shall I do?"
Geoffrey, who had been trying to look over some papers, started up and paced the room hurriedly. "This—this is very curious!" he was trying to say to himself. "Hysteria pure and simple—very interesting— I must note the duration of the paroxysms. Good God! can't somebody stop her? perfectly inhuman, to let a creature go on like that!"
He was at the door, with some vague idea of alarming the house, when a soft knock was heard on the other side. He flung the door open, and startled Miss Vesta so that she gave a little cry of dismay, and retreated to the head of the stairs. "Pray excuse me, Doctor Strong," she said. "I see that you are occupied; I pray you to excuse me!"
"No, no!" said Geoffrey, hurriedly. "I am not—it's nothing at all. What can I do for you, Miss Vesta? Do come in, please!"
"My niece," said the little lady, with a troubled look, "is in a highly nervous condition to-day, Doctor Strong. She is—weeping. My sister thought you might have—" she paused, as Miss Phoebe's crisp and decided tones came up over the stairs.
"Little Vesta has got into a crying-spell, Doctor Strong. I want a little valerian for her, please. I will go down and give it to her myself, if you will hand it to my sister."
"In one moment, Miss Blyth," called Geoffrey, in his most composed and professional tones. Then, seizing Miss Vesta's hand, he almost dragged her into the room, and shut the door.
"Don't let her go!" he said, hurriedly, as he sought and poured out the valerian. "Take it yourself, please, Miss Vesta, please! Miss Blyth will—that is, she is less gentle than you; if your niece is in such a condition as—as you say, you are the one to soothe her. Will you go? Please do."
"Dear Doctor Strong," said Miss Vesta, panting a little, "are you—I fear you are unwell yourself. You alarm me, my dear young friend."
"I am a brute," said Geoffrey; "a clumsy, unfeeling brute!" He kissed her little white wrinkled hand; then, still holding it, paused to listen. The voice came up again from the place of torture.
"What shall I do? Oh, dear! oh, dear! what shall I do?"
He pressed the glass in Miss Vesta's hand. "There! there! a teaspoonful at once, please; but you will be better than medicine. Tell Miss Blyth—tell her I want very much to speak to her, please! Ask if she could come up here now, this moment, just for two or three minutes. And you'll go down yourself, won't you, Miss Vesta— dear Miss Vesta?"
He was so absorbed in listening he did not hear the creaking of Miss Phoebe's morocco shoes on the stairs; and when she appeared before him, flushed and slightly out of breath, he stared at the good lady as if he had never seen her before.
"You wished to see me, Doctor Strong?" Miss Phoebe began. She was half pleased, half ruffled, at being summoned in this imperious way.
"Yes—oh, yes," answered Geoffrey, vaguely. "Come in, please, Miss Blyth. Won't you sit down—no, I wouldn't sit near the window, it's damp to-day (it was not in the least damp). Sit here, in my chair. Did you know there was a secret pocket in this chair? Very curious thing!"
"I was aware of it," said Miss Phoebe, with dignity. "Was that what you wished to say to me, Doctor Strong?"
"No—oh, no (thank Heaven, she has stopped! that angel is with her). I—I am ashamed to trouble you, Miss Blyth, but you said you would be so very good as to look over my shirts some day, and see if they are worth putting on new collars and cuffs. It's really an imposition; any time will do, if you are busy now. I only thought, hearing your voice—"
"There is no time like the present," said Miss Phoebe, in her most gracious tone. "It will be a pleasure, I assure you, Doctor Strong, to look over any portions of your wardrobe, and give you such advice as I can. I always made my honoured father's shirts after my dear mother's death, so I am, perhaps, not wholly unfitted for this congenial task. Ah, machine-made!"
"Beg pardon!" said Geoffrey, who had been listening to something else.
"These shirts were made with the aid of the sewing-machine, I perceive," said Miss Phoebe. "No—oh, no, it is nothing unusual. Very few persons, I believe, make shirts entirely by hand in these days. I always set the same number of stitches in my father's shirts, five thousand and sixty. He always said that no machine larger than a cambric needle should touch his linen."
"Then—you don't think they are worth new collars?" said Geoffrey, abstractedly.
"Did I convey that impression?" said Miss Phoebe, with mild surprise. "I had no such intention, Doctor Strong. I think that a skilful person, with some knowledge of needlework, could make these garments (though machine-made) last some months yet. You see, Doctor Strong, if she takes this—"
It was a neat and well-sustained little oration that Miss Phoebe delivered, emphasising her remarks with the cuff of a shirt; but it was lost on Geoffrey Strong. He was listening to another voice that came quavering up from the garden below, a sweet high voice, like a wavering thread of silver. No more sobs; and Miss Vesta was singing; the sweetest song, Geoffrey thought, that he had ever heard.
The next day and the next Geoffrey avoided the garden as if it were a haunt of cobras. The dining-room, too, was a place of terror to him, and at each meal he paused before entering the room, nerving himself for what he might have to face. This was wholly unreasonable, he told himself repeatedly; it was ridiculous; it was—the young man was not one to spare himself—it was unprofessional.
"Oh, yes, I know all that," he replied; "but they shouldn't cry. There ought to be a law against their crying."
Here it occurred to him that he had seen his cousins cry many times, and had never minded it; but that was entirely different, he said.
However, he need not distress himself, it appeared; Vesta Blyth kept her room for several days. At first Geoffrey found it easier not to speak of her; but the third day he pounced on Miss Vesta when she was filling her lamp, and startled her so that she almost dropped her scissors.
"Excuse me, Miss Vesta," he said; "what funny scissors! I shouldn't think you could cut anything with them. I was going to ask—how is your niece to-day? I trust the hysterical condition is passing away?"
Miss Vesta sighed. "Yes, Doctor Strong," she said. "Vesta is quiet again, oh, yes, very quiet, and sleeping better; we are very grateful for your interest in her."
A few professional questions and answers followed. There were no acute or alarming symptoms. There was little to do for the girl, except to let her rest and "come round;" she would recover in time, but it might be a long time. Geoffrey felt somehow younger than he had; neurasthenia was a pretty word on paper, but he did not feel so sure about making a specialty of it.
Miss Vesta fluttered about her lamp; he became conscious that she wanted to say something to him. She began with sundry little plaintive murmurings, which might have been addressed to him or to the lamp.
"Pity! pity! yes, indeed. So bright and young, so full of hope and joy, and darkened so soon. Yes, indeed, very sad!"
Geoffrey helped her. "What is it, Miss Vesta?" he asked, tenderly. "You are going to tell me something."
Miss Vesta looked around her timidly. "Sister Phoebe did not wish me to mention it," she said, in a low tone. "She thinks it—indelicate. But—you are so kind, Doctor Strong, and you are a physician. Poor little Vesta has had a disappointment, a cruel disappointment."
Geoffrey murmured something, he hardly knew what. The little lady hurried on. "It is not that I have any sympathy with—I never liked the object—not at all, I assure you, Doctor Strong. But her heart was fixed, and she had had every reason to suppose herself—it has been a terrible blow to her. Renunciation—in youth—is a hard thing, my dear young friend, a very hard thing."
She pressed his hand, and hurried away with her scissors, giving one backward look to make sure that the lamp showed no aspect that did not shine with the last touch of brilliancy.
Geoffrey Strong went down into the garden—he had not been there since the day of the sobbing—and paced about, never thinking of the pipe in his pocket. He found himself talking to the blue larkspur. "Beast!" was what he called this beautiful plant. "Dolt! ass! inhuman brute! If I had the kicking of you—" here he recovered his silence; found pebbles to kick, and pursued them savagely up one path and down another. A mental flash-light showed him the ruffian who had wounded this bright creature; had led her on to love him, and then—either betrayed his brutal nature so that hers rose up in revolt, or—just as likely—that kind of man would do anything—gone off and left her. His picture revealed a smart-looking person with black hair and a waxed moustache, and complexion of feminine red and white (Geoffrey called it beef and suet).
"The extraordinary thing is, what women see in such a fellow!" he told the syringa. The syringa drooped, and looked sympathetic. The hammock was hanging there still—poor little thing! Geoffrey did not mean the hammock. He stood looking at the place, and winced as the sobs struck his ear again; memory's ear this time, but that was hardly less keen. How terribly she grieved! she must have cared for him; bang! went the pebbles again.
There was a rustle behind the syringa-bush. Geoffrey looked up and saw Vesta Blyth standing before him.
He could not run away. He must not look at her professionally. Despair imparted to his countenance a look of stony vacuity which sat oddly on it.
The girl looked at him, and it seemed as if the shadow of a smile looked out of her shadowy eyes. "I thought you might be here, Doctor Strong," she said, quietly. "I am coming in to tea to-night. I am entirely myself again, I assure you—and first I wished—I want to apologise to you for my absurd behaviour the other day."
"Please don't!" said Geoffrey.
"I must; I have to. I am weak, you see, and—I lost hold of myself, that was all. It was purely hysterical, as you of course saw. I have had—a great trouble. Perhaps my aunts may have told you."
Good God! she wasn't going to talk about it? Geoffrey thought a subterranean dungeon would be a pleasant place.
"I—yes!" he admitted, feeling the red curling around his ears. "Miss Vesta did say something—it's an infernal shame! I wish I could tell you how sorry I am."
"Thank you!" said the girl; and a rich note thrilled in her voice. Yes—it certainly was like a 'cello. "I did not know how you would— you are very kind, Doctor Strong. Dear Aunt Vesta; she would try to make the best of it, I know. Aunt Phoebe will not speak of it, she is too much shocked, but Aunt Vesta is angelic."
"Indeed she is!" said the young doctor, heartily. "And she is so pretty, too, and so soft and creamy; I never saw any one like her."
There was a moment of dreadful silence. Geoffrey sought desperately for a subject of conversation, but the frivolous spirit of tragedy refused to suggest anything except boots, and women never understand boots.
The strange thing was, that the girl did not appear to find the silence dreadful. She stood absently curling and uncurling a syringa-leaf between her long white fingers. All the lines of her were long, except the curl of her upper lip, and there was not an ungraceful one among them. Her face was quietly sad, but there was no sign of confusion in it. Good heavens! what were women made of?
Presently she turned to him, and again the shadow of a smile crept into her eyes. "You don't ask whether I am better, Doctor Strong," she said; and there was even a faint suggestion of mischief in her voice.
"No!" said Geoffrey. "I shall never ask you that again."
The shadow turned to a spark. "You might help me!" she exclaimed. "At least you need not make it harder for me—" she checked herself, and went on in a carefully even tone. "I am so ashamed of myself!" she said. "I thought when I came here that I had quite got myself in hand; the other day taught me a lesson. I was abominably rude, and I beg your pardon."
She held out her hand frankly; Geoffrey took it, and was conscious that, though it was too cold, it had the same quality that Miss Vesta's hand had, a touch like rose-leaves, smooth and light and dry. She shook hands as if she meant it, too, instead of giving a limp flap, as some girls did. It was impossible to tell the colour of her eyes; but she was speaking again.
"And—I want to say this, too. There isn't anything to do for me, you know; I must just wait. But—I know how I should feel in your place; and if there seem to be any interesting or unusual symptoms, I will tell you—if you like?"
"Thank you!" said Geoffrey. "It would be very good of you, I'm sure."
She turned to the syringa-bush again, and breaking off a spray, fastened it in her white gown. "You think of studying nerves, I believe?" she said, presently. "As a specialty, I mean. Well, they are horrible things." She spoke abruptly, and as if half to herself. "To think of this network of treachery spreading through and through us, lying in wait for us, leading us on, buoying us up with false strength, sham elasticity—and then collapsing like a toy balloon, leaving nothing but a rag, a tatter of humanity. Oh, it is shameful! it is disgraceful! Look at me! what business have I with nerves?"
She stretched out her long arms and threw her head back. The gesture was powerful; one saw that strength was the natural order of life with this lithe, long-limbed creature. But the next instant she drooped together like a tired lily.
"I know that is nonsense!" she said, moodily. "I know it just as well as you do. I am tired; I think I'll go in now."
"Why not try the hammock?" Geoffrey suggested. "The garden is better than the house to-day. Or—do you like the water? My canoe came yesterday; why not come out for a short paddle?"
The girl looked at him doubtfully. "I—don't know!"
"Best thing in the world for you!" said Geoffrey, who had fully recovered his ease, and felt benevolently professional. "You ought to keep out-of-doors all you can. I'll get some shawls and a pillow."
Vesta looked longingly out at the water, then doubtfully again at the young doctor. "If you are sure—" she said; "if you really have time, Doctor Strong. Your patients—"
"Bother my patients!" said the young doctor.
An hour later, Miss Phoebe Blyth was confronting a flushed and panting matron at the front door.
"No, Mrs. Worrett, he has not come in yet. It is past his customary hour, but he has been detained, no doubt, by some urgent case. Doctor Strong never spares himself. I fear for him sometimes, I must confess. Will you step in and wait, or shall I—colic? oh! if that is all, it will hardly be necessary to send the doctor out. I shall take the liberty of giving you a bottle of my checkerberry cordial. I have made it for forty years, and Doctor Strong approves of it highly. Give the baby half a teaspoonful in a wine-glass of hot water, and repeat the dose in an hour if not relieved. Not at all, I beg of you, Mrs. Worrett. It is a pleasure to be able to relieve the babe, as well as to spare Doctor Strong a little. He comes in quite exhausted sometimes from these long trips. Good evening to you, ma'am."
The Ladies' Society was to meet at the Temple of Vesta; or, rather (since that name for the brick house was known only to the old and the young doctor), at the Blyth Girls'. The sisters always entertained the society once a year, and it was apt to be the favourite meeting of the season. It was the peaceful pastime of two weeks, for Miss Phoebe and Miss Vesta, to prepare for the annual festivity, by polishing the already shining house to a hardly imaginable point of brilliant cleanliness. In the kitchen of the Temple, Diploma Grotty ruled supreme, as she had ruled for twenty years. Miss Phoebe was occasionally permitted to trifle with a jelly or a cream, but even this was upon sufferance; while if Miss Vesta ever had any culinary aspirations, they were put down with a high hand, and an injunction not to meddle with them things, but see to her parlours and her chaney. This injunction, backed by her own spotless ideals, was faithfully carried out by Miss Vesta. Miss Phoebe, by right of her position as elder sister and martyr to rheumatism (though she sometimes forgot her martyrdom in these days), took charge of the upper class of preparation; examined the lace curtains in search of a possible stitch dropped in the net, "did up" the frilled linen bags that formed the decent clothing of the window-tassels, the tidies, and the entire stock of "laces" owned by her and her sister. One could never be sure beforehand which collar one would want to wear when the evening came, and while one was about it, it was as well to do them all; so for many days the sewing-room was adorned with solemn bottles swathed in white, on which collars, cuffs, and scarfs were delicately stitched. Miss Vesta—cleaned.
For some days the young doctor had been conscious of a stronger odour than usual of beeswax and rosin. Also, the tiny room by the front door, which was sacred as his office, began to shine with a kind of inward light. No one was ever there when he came in,—no one, that is, save the occasional patient,—but he always found that his papers had assembled themselves in orderly piles on the table where he was wont to throw them; that the table itself had become so glossy that things slipped about or fell off whenever he moved them; and that no matter where he left his pipes, he always found them ranged with exact symmetry on the mantel-shelf. (If he could have known the affectionate terror with which those delicate white old fingers touched the brown, fragrant, masculine things! There were four of the pipes, Zuleika, Haidee, Nourmahal, and Scheherezade; the fellows used to call them his harem, and him Haroun Alraschid.)
Geoffrey was always careful about wiping his feet when he came in; he was a well-brought-up lad, and never meant to leave a speck on the polished floor. Now, however, he was aware of fragrant, newly rubbed spots that appeared as if by magic every time he returned through the entry after passing along it. Several times he saw a gray gown flutter and disappear through a doorway; but it might have been Diploma.
One day, however,—it was the very day of the party,—he chanced to come into the parlour for a match or the like, and found Miss Vesta on her knees, apparently praying to one of the teak-wood chairs; and the girl Vesta, white as wax, standing beside another, rubbing it with even, practised strokes. The young doctor looked from one to the other.
"What does this mean?" he said. "What upon earth are you doing, you two?"
Miss Vesta looked up, pink and breathless.
"My dear Doctor Strong, I wish you would use your professional influence with Vesta. I am making a little preparation, as you see, for this evening. It—I take pleasure in it, and find the exercise beneficial. But Vesta is entirely unfit for it, as I have repeatedly pointed out to her. She persists—" the little lady paused for breath. The young doctor took the cloth from the girl's hand, and opened the door.
"You would better go and lie down, Miss Blyth," he said, abruptly. "I'll see to this—" he said "tomfoolery," but not aloud.
The colour crept into Vesta's white cheeks, the first he had seen there. "I don't want to lie down, thank you!" she said, coldly. "Give me the cloth, please!"
Their eyes measured swords for an instant. Then—
"You can hardly stand now," said Geoffrey, quietly. "If you faint I shall have to carry you up-stairs, and that—"
She was gone, but he still saw her face like a white flame. He looked after her a moment, then turned to Miss Vesta, who was still on her knees. His look of annoyance changed to one of distress. "Dear Miss Vesta, will you please get up this moment? What can you be doing? Are you praying to Saint Beeswax?"
"Oh, no, Doctor Strong. We never—the Orthodox Church—but you are jesting, my dear young friend. I—a little healthful exercise—oh, please, Doctor Geoffrey!"
For two strong hands lifted her bodily, and set her down in her own particular armchair. "Exercise is recommended for me," said the little lady, piteously. "You yourself, Doctor Geoffrey, said I ought to take more exercise."
"So you shall. You shall dance all the evening, if you like. I'll play the fiddle, and you and the minister—no, no, I don't mean the minister! Don't look like that! you and Deacon Weight shall dance together. It will be the elephant and the fl—butterfly. But I am going to do this, Miss Vesta."
He in turn went down on his knees to the teak-wood chair, and examined it curiously. "Is this—supposed to need cleaning?" he asked; "or is it to be used as a looking-glass? Perhaps you had just finished this one?" He looked hopefully at Miss Vesta, and saw her face cloud with distress.
"I was about to polish it a little," she said. "It is already clean, in a measure, but a little extra polish on such occasions—"
Geoffrey did not wait for more, but rubbed away with might and main, talking the while.
"You see, Miss Vesta, it is very important for me to learn about these things. You and Miss Phoebe may turn me out some day, and then the lonely bachelor will have to set up his own establishment, and cook his own dinner, and polish his own chairs. Do you think I could cook a dinner? I'll tell you what we'll do, some day; we'll send Diploma off for a holiday, and I'll get the dinner."
"Oh, my dear young friend, I fear that would not be possible. Diploma is so set in her ways! She will hardly let me set foot in the kitchen, but Sister Phoebe goes in whenever she pleases. I—I think that chair is as bright as it can be, Doctor Strong. I am greatly obliged to you. It looks beautiful, and now I need not trouble you further; you are much occupied, I am sure. Oh, pray—pray give me back the cloth, Doctor Geoffrey."
But Geoffrey declared he had not had such fun for weeks. "Consider my biceps," he said. "You ought to consider my biceps, Miss Vesta."
He went from chair to chair, Miss Vesta following him with little plaintive murmurs, in which distress and admiration were equally blended; and rubbed, and rubbed again, till all the room was full of dark glory. There was one bad moment, when the weak leg of the three-cornered table threatened to give way under his vigorous attack, and protested with a sharp squeak of anguish; but though Geoffrey and Miss Vesta both examined it with searching scrutiny, no new crack was visible. He offered to bandage the old crack, warranting to make the ailing leg the strongest of the four; but, on the whole, it did not seem necessary.
"If only Deacon Weight does not lean on it!" said Miss Vesta. "Perhaps you could manage to stand near it yourself, Doctor Geoffrey, if you should see the deacon approaching it. He is apt, when engaged in conversation, to rest both elbows on a table; it is a great strain on any furniture."
Geoffrey looked a little blank. "Were you expecting me to join the party?" he asked; "I thought—I should be rather in the way, shouldn't I?" He read his answer in the piteous startled look of the little lady, and hastened on before she could speak. "I didn't suppose I was invited, Miss Vesta. Of course I shall come, if I may, with the greatest pleasure."
"Dear Doctor Strong," said Miss Vesta, with a happy sigh, "it would have been such a sad blow if we must have dispensed with your society."
It would indeed have been a tragic disappointment to both sisters if their lodger had not appeared on the great occasion. As it was, Miss Vesta was fluttered, and only restored to full composure when, at tea, Doctor Strong begged to know the exact hour at which the guests were expected, that he might be ready on time.
The pride of the good ladies knew no bounds when Doctor Strong entered the parlour in faultless evening dress, with a tiny blush-rose, from Miss Vesta's favourite tree, in his buttonhole. Evening dress was becoming to Geoffrey. The Ladies' Society fluttered at sight of him, and primmed itself, and shook out its skirts.
Geoffrey's face was radiant over his white tie. He had planned a cozy evening in his own room, with a new treatise on orthopaedics that had just come; but no one would have thought that he took delight in anything except Society meetings. He went from group to group, as if he were the son of the house, cheering the forlorn, lightening the heavy, smoothing down the prickly,—a medical Father O'Flynn. But it was the elderly and the middle-aged that he sought out; the matrons whose children he had tended, the spinsters whose neuralgia he had relieved. The few younger members of the Society bridled and simpered in vain; the young doctor never looked their way.
"Good evening, Mrs. Worrett; sorry I missed you the other day; but Miss Blyth prescribed for you, and she is as good a doctor as I am, any day. How is the baby now? quite well! Good; Yes; oh, yes, excellent. In simple cases these mild carminatives are just the thing. Keep his diet steady, though, while the warm weather lasts. I saw him with a doughnut the other day, and took it away from him; knew he got it by accident, of course. Yes, bread and milk, that kind of thing. Fine little fellow, and we want him to have the best chance there is.
"Miss Wax, I am glad to see you here. Headache all gone, eh? Hurrah! I'd keep on with those powders, though, if I were you, for a week or two. You're looking fine, as the Scotch say. Hope you won't want to see me again for a long time, and it's very good and unselfish of me to say that, for I haven't forgotten the plum-cake you gave me.
"How do you do, Deacon? glad to see you! yes, glorious weather." Here Geoffrey moved easily between Deacon Weight and the three-cornered table, which the deacon was approaching. "Suppose we stand here in the corner a moment! Men are always rather in the way, don't you think, at things of this kind? Mrs. Weight here to-night? ah! yes, I see her. How well she's looking! Not been well yourself, Deacon? I'm sorry to hear that. What's the—dyspepsia again? that's bad. Have you tried the light diet I recommended? Well, I would, if I were in your place. I'd knock off two or three pounds of your usual diet, and get a bicycle—yes, you could. A cousin of mine in New York weighed three hundred pounds before he got his bicycle; had one made to order, of course, special weight; now he weighs a hundred and seventy-five, and is as active as a cat. Great thing! ah, excuse me, Deacon!"
He crossed the room, and bowed low before a lady with white hair and an amazing cap, who had been gazing at him with twinkling eyes. This was Mrs. Tree, the Misses Blyths' aunt.
"Mrs. Tree, how do you do? why were you looking at me in that way? I've been trying to speak to you all the evening, but you have been surrounded. I think it's a shame for a women over twenty-five" (Mrs. Tree was ninety, and immensely proud of her age) "to monopolise all the attention. What do you think?"